February 26, 2018

Lent 2 - Leviticus 20:6-8

Theme: Uncomfortable Holiness Makes for Unconditional Gospel

Leviticus 20:6-8 "'I will set my face against anyone who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute themselves by following them, and I will cut them off from their people. 7 "'Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. 8 Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy.

Dear Saints fellow Redeemed in Christ Jesus –

Thursday morning after we had that snowfall on Wednesday evening, I was walking back home from the church and exiting the back door. Little did I know there was a sleek layer of ice on the sidewalk. I exited the door, phone to my ear because I was in the middle of a phone call, and with the first step I took I completely wiped out. Part of it was being distracted on the phone, with coffee cup in other hand. Part of it was not expecting ice.

You can ask Gretchen what the scene was like because she saw the whole thing from the house. Allie also. I slipped so completely that my phone flew out of my hand, into the air, and thankfully landed in the mulch. I’m sure the entire thing would have been quite entertaining in slow motion, set to some classical music. Thankfully, after all was said and done, my lesson was learned without any major injuries.

The next morning, at breakfast, Allie asks me; “Dad, remember when you tripped on the ice yesterday?” Chuckling, I replied “yes.” She proceeded to tell me, “You shouldn’t do that, dad!” I tried to explain to her that I wasn’t trying to fall, and I slipped, not tripped. But, she kept on telling me I shouldn’t do it again. Good advice, I suppose.

That ordeal and subsequent conversation made me think about our text for today. This short section, much like the entire book of Leviticus, centers on the uncomfortable topic of holiness. Talking about holiness and applying it to one’s life, as a sinner – as we all are, is like having an awkward conversation with someone whom you have no connection with. Imagine being at a dinner party and having to converse with a professional athlete if you hated sports. Imagine having to get to know a politician if you were entirely anti-government – or opposed to their policy platform. Awkward, at best. Take it one step further even. Imagine being that person’s foremost enemy, hated, despised, and maligned – not just uninterested. Having to be in the presence of someone who hurt you as much as you can be hurt, or someone who took something dear from you. You’d have to think that hostility would go both ways. 

That’s what it’s like when God talks about holiness in His Word. We don’t like to hear it because we know we’re imperfect. But, there’s tension, too, because we know that our unholiness hurt God in the deepest way possible. We have shame. There’s uneasiness when we hear God address us about our guiltiest mistake. And so, we naturally gravitate away from the parts of His Word that shine the light on our betrayal of God; and Leviticus cuts right to the heart of the issue.

Because of our shame, we also try to take shots at holiness itself and at God who set the standard of holiness. We treat it like my discussion with Allie. God says, “You shouldn’t do that!” We reply, “Well, I didn’t try to, God” and think that makes it okay. Now, we’re talking about something much bigger than slipping on the ice, but how often have we convinced ourselves that our own intentions, even if they fall short of God’s commandments, give us a free pass? “I wanted to God, but I just couldn’t!” This is especially true when we think about ways in which we are helpless against sin. We desperately want to believe that our inability to control the situation will lessen God’s demand for complete holiness.

But there’s another side to sin. I can hate it. There are certain things I can control. I can actively try to curb it. I can run from it. But, the end result is the same - I can’t defeat it on my own. I am completely corrupted because of my unholiness, whether I feel like I have control or not. Like Paul said of himself, even the good we try to do, that which we want to do, we cannot accomplish. Just because you fall into sin does not mean you are addicted, it doesn’t mean you’re making excuses, it doesn’t mean you’re trying to cover anything up. But, it still means you’re not holy – and that’s a problem before God. Holiness is uncomfortable for us because our unholiness is vast.

Here’s why many people wonder, where’s the gospel in Leviticus, in the Old Testament? Furthermore, where does the gospel fit with a God who demands righteousness and gives commandments? If the gospel is really a good message, wouldn’t it fit better with the image of Jesus as a carefree, non-judgmental, anti-authorities, country-side roaming prophet? The kind of Jesus that makes me feel like a good person, not a damned sinner. What’s with all this talk of holiness?  

While Leviticus can be a challenging book for modern readers the good news is indeed alive and well in it, in some of the most cherished and unique ways. The scapegoat analogy. The Day of Atonement festival, the concept of the unblemished male lamb offered for sins – all in the book of Leviticus.

Yet, here in our text, God takes that idea of holiness, that which ruffles our feathers in so many ways, and uses it for our comfort and hope. After warning the people of idolatry, the LORD says, "'Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. 8 Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy.”

The key to understanding this text is in the structure of the words so I’m going to try to summarize here. First, the words for “consecrate” and “holy” are the same Hebrew word – so the same word of holiness is stated three times. In the first two instances of holiness (v.7), God speaks of His expectation. “Consecrate yourselves,” and “be holy.” God is speaking to us here. The structure of these words indicates a reflexive attitude. In other words, the reader is to look inwardly at his or her life – to reflect upon holiness. Consider your thoughts, words, and actions. Do they line up with God’s holiness? Furthermore, after looking at your own heart, do you reflect that image of holiness to others? Do they see it in every aspect of your life? This is a very personal statement by the Lord, and shows us the seriousness of what He is getting at. For Israel, the answer was self-evident. They were caught up in idolatry, “prostituting themselves” to false gods as the LORD described it. What about your life? God wants you to reflect on that, and then reflect His holiness to the world. 

This is exactly why many people part ways with the book of Leviticus, the Old Testament, the topic of holiness, and even God Himself. They call the LORD an over-bearing God who expects too much. A deity who demands the impossible just to make us feel unworthy. And for many people, they are more than content to leave it at that and move on from that kind of belief. Who wants to serve a God who expects what I can’t deliver? Some say, even if heaven exists, who would want to live for eternity with a God like that?

But, the Word of our God tells us much more than just His expectations. Stay with the Word, stay in it, and you will find hope. The third instance of holiness is all about what God does – verse 8: “I am the LORD, who makes you holy.” This is where hope enters. Before we can even finish processing the commands God gives, He freely offers the means to achieve them. He demands holiness but He provides it also.

Here’s what we need to remember about the structure of this verse. This verb, used of God’s work for us, indicates an intensified action. The verb form is a way in which the Hebrew language expresses the authority or quality of an action, if you will. This tense, used to describe what God does for us in regard to holiness, indicates a stronger action than the previous words used to describe His expectations for us. For example, take the verb “kill.” The normal use of this verb in Hebrew could explain a number of situations. It doesn’t lend any further information about the nature of the killing. Was it justified or not? Was it human or animal? We don’t know. But, you can take the same word, and use the intensive tense of the verb, and it is properly translated as “murder.” That heightened interpretation leaves no doubt as to what is meant.

We have the same thing happening here with the concept of holiness and it’s not a coincidence. What God promises to do for us – to make us holy as He has commanded, is far more powerful that the way we reflect that holiness in our lives. And yet both aspects are important for us to understand – so God communicates both. Anywhere you look in His Word – Old Testament or New – whenever you see a command given, or a testimony of God’s righteousness, the gospel promise will be closely connected. God never commands without reason. He never breaks down without also provided a way to be built up. It’s up to us whether we listen to His entire Word, learn from it, and be strengthened by it, or whether we will pick and choose what we’d like to hear. What’s at stake in our lives, is not just properly understanding the law of God, but also the gospel – the true good news.
The Lutheran Church, and even fewer of them today, is the last major church body to proclaim the unconditional gospel. Notice, I didn’t say Lutherans were the only ones proclaiming the gospel, but the unconditional gospel. I believe this to be true first and foremost because God’s grace. There is nothing in Lutherans, or any other person, that lends itself to the truth. But Lutherans continue to have this blessing of the unconditional gospel because we believe it is essential to have doctrinal integrity in all areas. One might say, it’s because we continue to preach the law, in all its severity, that we still have the unconditional gospel, in all its sweetness. How could that be the case?

There is an amazing complexity and back and forth between the believer and God. We call this the relationship of faith. The gospel call is free and gracious, entirely dependent on God, unconditional in its promises. It is a no obligation blessing. Yet, the gospel call also lays upon the hearer’s heart an impetus to believe it – to hear the message and receive it. Part of the unconditional nature of the gospel is that it allows the opportunity to reject. For an individual who sees and understands a complete picture of what the gospel means for his or her life, there will be a pressing need that comes along with the gospel message.

The danger in this is that we over-emphasize this pressing need at the expense of the gospel’s unconditional character. We end up turning the gospel into a law.

Whenever there is freedom from conditions to receive or reject, there is an incentive to accept what is good and right. The very gospel message implies a certain importance that should outweigh everything else in life. And so, God lays that importance on your heart, through His Word, in statements like: “Consecrate yourselves and be holy.” That statement by itself is a command but spoken within the entire context of Scripture it’s importance ultimately stems from the gospel promise that God will make us holy though faith in Christ. The motivation to consecrate yourself, the ability to consecrate yourself, is directly tied to the fact that God is the one who makes you holy.  
This is the beautiful interweaving dance of God’s Word – law and gospel working in conjunction to bring sinners to faith and eternal salvation. When we isolate one aspect, one word, or one saying over the other, it diminishes the entire truth about what God is revealing to us. And then, we lose the unconditional nature of the gospel. There are many preachers and churches today that teach salvation is in Christ, but make more of the underlying impetus to believe than should be made, by going to on say:
“you must be born again”
“do you have saving faith?”
“have you invited Jesus into your heart?”
“you must choose Jesus Christ”

Dear friends, the gospel presents an important situation – the most important. But, it’s importance does not rest on our decisions or actions, and is never greater than the One who supplies our every need. To stay focused on Jesus, you need all of His Word – the uncomfortable and the embarrassing. That which makes us feel shame and feel gladness. That which stirs guilt in our hearts by what seems unfair and also that which stirs joy and peace by what was unfair for Christ. The strict commandments. The liberating grace. There’s a reason God gave it all to us, because we need it. And the life of faith is walked by hearing and sharing it all. 

Sin is a wretched thing – a continual infestation that we must live with. Sometimes we desire the self-satisfying feeling of sin. Sometimes we run from it. Always we are helpless on our own. God says “Don’t sin – no matter what.” In shame, we desperately look for anything that will make us feel better, even if it means cheating God’s own commandment. Don’t neglect what He says. Don’t rely on good intentions in the Day of Judgement. You don’t have to. Stick with the Word, uncomfortable at times. Hasten after holiness, embarrassing though it be at times. Stay with the Lord and you won’t need your own good intentions, because you’ll have His good Word – the unconditional gospel. Unconditional in its importance. Unconditional in its blessings. Unconditional because God makes us holy – in His Son. Amen.

February 19, 2018

Lent 1 - Hebrews 1:13-2:9

Theme: What God Changed to Secure Redemption
1. With Angels and the Earth
2. With His Son

When God finished creating the universe, He said it was good. Such a simple statement but what profound implications it had. The perfect and almighty God had given His stamp of approval on the world and its inhabitants. It was all up to His standard. But, we know how things changed with sin. The book of Romans tells us that this once good world now “groans with pain like a woman in labor (Romans 8:22).” We, too, as creations of God, feel that pain in our hearts and lives. What God had created was no longer good, because of our sin.

We have a portion of God’s Word before us today, that looks at His creative power and shows what God did to deal with sin. Part of God’s work involved changing His creation. Hebrews highlights a few of those aspects as they pertain to the plan of salvation. In His almighty wisdom, God knew all of this even before He created the world. Despite mankind’s ruining of God’s perfect creation, God already had a plan in place to take care of it, and to ensure redemption for all sinners. We ask the Holy Spirit to bless our study today and reveal in our hearts whatever parts of that wisdom from our Creator that we can receive, as we read our text from Hebrews 1:13-2:9.  

13 But to which of the angels has He ever said: "Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool"? 14 Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?

2:1 Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, 4 God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will? 5 For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels. 6 But one testified in a certain place, saying:

"What is man that You are mindful of him, Or the son of man that You take care of him? 7 You have made him a little lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor, And set him over the works of Your hands. 8 You have put all things in subjection under his feet."

For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. 9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.

Without a doubt, angels are mysterious creatures. This is partly due to their supernatural abilities and their existence as spirits. This is also due to the fact that we simply don’t know much about angels. We see occurrences of angels pop up throughout the Bible, but not enough to fully understand them. The clearest description we see of angels is that they evoke fear and uneasiness in people. The realm of angels is just another reminder that there are many things about God that we don’t know about and frankly, that we really don’t need to know about.

Regardless of how much we don’t know about angels, our text tells us some very important things about them today, especially the role they play in God’s plan of salvation. Chapter 1:14 is paramount to understanding angels: Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation? Angels are spirits. They were created to serve God and God’s creation. And most importantly, they serve those who will inherit salvation. In other words, angels are here to assist believers in getting to heaven.

There’s two things of importance when it comes to the phrase, “those who will inherit salvation.” First, to inherit something is to receive something that has not been earned by the recipient. God reminds us, as He does often throughout His Word, that salvation is His free gift. The other aspect of an inheritance is that it is valuable. We’re not talking about a nickel or dime type gift. An inheritance is something so valuable that is cannot be bought, even if a person wanted to. An inheritance is a gift that is centered on immaterial things – like family and love. An inheritance offers intangible treasures of quality like: respect, admiration, and the continuance of tradition. The fact that God describes His gift of salvation as an inheritance tells us that it is a multi-faceted blessing on many different levels.
God created angels to minister to His greatest creation, mankind, in receiving and holding on to His gift of life everlasting.

However, there’s another realm of God’s creation that serves a purpose in this manner too – the rest of the creation. Our text quotes from Psalm 8:8: You (God) have put all things in subjection under his (man’s) feet. Part of the beauty and goodness of God’s original creation was bestowing dominion to mankind. To set humans apart as His highest creation, God gave them power over the rest of the earth. But, Hebrews goes on to describe the effect sin had on this: 2:8 But now we do not yet see all things put under him.

Because of sin, humans fail in their role as chief stewards of God’s creation. We do not witness God’s original plan of perfect leadership over the world or complete harmony between creature and Creator. In contrast, the creation seems to exert dominance over man. Natural disasters threaten our homes and livelihoods. Pestilence and disease infringe upon civilizations. Going back to the very beginning of sin, thorns and thistles continue to be reminders of the hardships we go through. There is so much about the natural world that is beyond our realm of influence.

But God made changes of His own to counteract our short-comings. Go back to angels as an example. They were created before the fall into sin, but back then there was no need for them to minister to humans in receiving salvation. God made a change. God reacted to our mistakes. God went even further by forming a plan to help us that reached down to our level, outside of the supernatural realm into human existence. Our text records: Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him.

God gave us His Word. Notice the emphasis on the Word of God in this section, even though we are still talking about the work of angels.
·       Give earnest heed to what we have heard.
·       The word spoken through angels proved steadfast.
·       Salvation was at first spoken by the Lord, and confirmed to those who heard Him.

Despite all the power God displays, His primary means of bring consolation and peace to sinners comes in a very ordinary way – through words spoken and heard. God may have borne witness of this word through very spectacular ways throughout history; our text mentions: signs and wonders, with various miracles, gifts of the Holy Spirit, and even angel revelations. But, it was and still is always about the simple message proclaimed. None of the ways in which God brought that message were ever more important that the truths which we spoken and heard.

That’s the same way it works today. The negative change of the earth because of sin was countered by God’s positive change through the service of His angelic messengers – as they shared and proclaimed His Word. None of this was part of God’s original plan, yet He willingly endured and produced change to secure salvation for fallen sinners.

Part 2: With His Son

But, none of this would mean anything without substance to back it all up. God made the biggest change possible – a change that cut even to His very nature as: Father, Son, and Spirit. God came to earth. He suffered and died. He reclaimed your life from Satan. Leaning up next to the example of mankind’s failed dominance over creation, is this statement from our text: But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.
Jesus is eternal and therefore not a product of the creation of the world. But, He changed with us in order to save us. Jesus became lower than His servants, the angels, when He took on flesh and blood. The dominion that God gave mankind at creation mirrored the ultimate dominion that Jesus willingly gave up in order to come to earth. As Paul wrote the Colossians, Jesus is the “firstborn over all creation (Colossians 1:15).” The first in preeminence and status. But, also the first, and only, to walk to the path to the cross in complete holiness.

God changed His nature to become human and He became human in order to die. Our text calls it “tasting death” for everyone. The word taste doesn’t mean Jesus only partly died or dabbled a bit in suffering without feeling the Father’s full wrath. It means that Jesus experienced death just as you experience a flavor through taste. He allowed death into His being. This was something that was never supposed to happen – many thought it was impossible; that God could die. It’s certainly one thing for God’s creation to experience death; that alone was never part of God’s will. But, for God Himself to be subjected to death was unheard of. No person would have imagined it.

Jesus suffered and died for us – what a blessed truth that no one can take away. But, we see even more here too. Jesus did this for everyone and He did it by His grace. Redemption from sin is not an inheritance that is reserved for just those who “choose” to believe, like its some elite club. It’s for the whole of humanity. Every person can be assured that their sins are taken away. Jesus did it for the world. Jesus did it by His grace. Because those two points are true, we have an opportunity to receive this blessing by faith. God graciously brings us into His family, He doesn’t need us to choose that for ourselves.

In an age when God’s status as the Creator of the heavens and earth is under attack in so many forms, we see today why it is so important to confess and believe what Genesis first recorded. The Creator cared about redeeming the world because it was His creation. But even more so, we see the great lengths that God, as both Creator and Redeemer, was willing to go to to secure redemption. He sends angels to serve and minster to His elect. He gave mankind a status of dominion out of His love and care for the pinnacle of His creation. And most importantly, God Himself came down for us, took on life in our place, and willingly offered it up for the eternal atonement of our souls. Thanks and praise be to Him. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Lenten Questions 1 - Why are you sleeping?

Theme: “Why are you sleeping?”
Text: Mark 14:37-38

There are fewer things in life that can cut as quickly to the heart as a good, pointed question. Oftentimes in moments of flattery or pride, a carefully crafted question can bring a person back down to reality. Or perhaps at a time of uncertainty and confusion, a wise question can break through the fog and lead to the way forward. Simple questions can also generate emotional responses. These things are all true because questions are reflective. Instead of making a declarative statement, questions point inwardly and force a person to think things through for themselves. Therefore, the quest of finding an answer to something gives us more than just information, it also helps us see the meaning.

For our Lenten series this year, we will look at different questions that were posed throughout the course of Christ’s passion. Some were asked by Christ Himself, some by others. Each question causes us to look into our hearts. Ask them for yourself as if you were there. By digging into the passion history in this way, it is our hope that the Holy Spirit will renew our hearts with a respect and admiration for the great sacrifice that Jesus made, and the place that each of these questions had in the course of events.

Our first question comes from the Garden of Gethsemane, as Christ asks of His disciples, specifically Peter, “Why are you sleeping?” The text we consider is Mark 14:37-38: Then He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, "Simon, are you sleeping? Could you not watch one hour? 38 "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."

Jesus wanted the disciples to watch and pray – two things that are extremely difficult to do when tired. Most of you probably have the tradition, like our family, of saying prayers before bedtime. It’s certainly a fitting thing to end the day by talking to God. Yet, if you’re like me, you’ve succumbed more than once to fatigue and sleep takes precedent over prayer. All too often I feel ashamed later because the prayers I intended to say never made it to the Lord because I couldn’t stay awake. We know the struggle that Peter and the disciples endured. Often our spirits are strong with sincerity and intent to be faithful, but our flesh lags far behind.

Jesus issued this command because He was concerned about the disciples’ safety – not from the approaching mob, but from Satan. The simple reality is that staying alert and in communication with God is so vital to keeping our faith alive. We, too, are under attack from many enemies on all sides – enemies that we are powerless to stand against on our own.

We’re not trying to undermine the disciples’ desire to be faithful to their Lord. Just a few verses earlier in our text, when Jesus told them they would all stumble that evening, Peter replied, “Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be (Mark 14:29).” Given that context we see why Peter was singled out by Jesus here in the garden. How it must have pained Peter to hear his Lord ask him, “Are you sleeping, could you not watch with Me one hour?”

Likewise, many are the times when we feel on fire for the Lord but the right actions don’t necessarily follow. We, too, in our hearts and even in our words, declare that no matter what happens, we will never falter or fail. Others may, but we believe there’s something different about ourselves – we can be stronger for the Lord. We can be better. And in the same fashion as Peter, many are the times when we feel the sting of reality, as we recognize how we have been unfaithful to the Lord.    

The thing about sleep is that we need it to recharge. The very reason we sleep is to restore our watchfulness. Isn’t sleep exactly what the disciples needed in that moment? What harm would a small nap do? Do we sense some unneeded stress by Jesus in reprimanding His followers for what seemed to be such a minor indiscretion?

Such are the opinions that many modern scholars would suggest. It’s seems like a such a small thing that the disciples fell asleep – perhaps even insignificant in the pages of the Bible. Yet, isn’t that exactly what our weak flesh would have us believe? Don’t be too hard on yourself. As long as you mean the right thing, you don’t have to be perfect. There are many people today who offer a soothing refreshment to our sinful flesh by telling us that there’s too much undue stress in trying to be faithful to the Words of God. They tell you that you don’t have to live under a microscope. They say it’s unrealistic to follow every part of God’s will or even to confess that you know the absolute truth.

All of those opinions make our flesh feel better for failing to live up to the spirit of faith. Yet, Jesus was the one who asked this question of His disciples. He didn’t disregard it as insignificant. He asked them, commanded them, to be faithful – to watch and pray – and they failed. Faith reminds us that Jesus acts in complete wisdom and grace. Stress had not gotten the better of the Savior – such a minor trifle wasn’t even on His radar, He was battling against Satan and death itself at this point.

The Savior’s question was a gentle rebuke of love – a tactful nudge back on track for the disciples. Even in these moments, with so much going on and so much to come, Jesus continued to patiently consider the needs of His followers. Each word, each moment with Jesus was an invaluable lesson they would need in the days and years ahead. If we feel that this moment is small in the grander scheme of the passion, it’s because we lack the maturity and insightfulness to see the purpose by faith. It’s because we’re thinking according to the flesh and not the spirit.

Much like sleep for our bodies, prayer gives rest to our souls. Rather than feed their flesh in this moment, Jesus wanted His disciples to feed their souls. They would need that much more than sleep in the coming hours. Prayer is also how God renews your soul. For the believer, that includes the new spirit in your heart – that which connects you to Jesus and leads you to desire to follow His will. And just as sleep is absolutely necessary for your body’s health, so prayer is vital for your soul. James writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him (James 1:5 ESV).” James is speaking about a need – something you have to have in order to live. If praying to God for things we want is important, how much more so for things we need. James says, just ask God – He is more than ready to supply what you need and He is willing to give much more as well.

Later on in his letter, James connected prayer to the war going on between the flesh and the spirit. He wrote, “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:2-3 ESV).”

The person who fails to heed the warning Christ is giving here, has no choice but to operate according to the flesh. Murdering, coveting, fighting, quarrelling, and so on. God is telling us, no matter how hard we struggle according to the flesh, we will never find what we’re looking for. No amount of fulfilled lust, acquired possessions, or victorious arguments will make us feel better. In contrast, they will only cause us to want more.

This is why Jesus also says to “watch.” It’s not enough to simply ask. Without being mindful of God’s will and diligent in His Word, we would ask amiss – only to suit our pleasures. Just as in all forms of Godliness – we see the best example in Jesus.

Through His own prayer to the Father in the garden, Jesus did not only ask, but He also remained watchful. He sought a different way to salvation than the cross but He didn’t demand it. He willingly obeyed His Father’s will. He submitted Himself to His Father’s command. Jesus trusted that the Word which had been promised would come to pass.

It’s hard for us to understand the nature of Jesus’ watchfulness and prayer. Sure, He had a lot on His mind but He was God. He was equal in power with the Father. He didn’t suffer from the host of small problems that come along with being a sinner. Within these thoughts it’s easy for us to console our guilt by playing the victim. How much harder it is for me – a mortal sinner; than it is for the divine Son of God. And just like that, we go back to encouraging the flesh to not feel so bad.

There’s no denying that Jesus remained God throughout this entire ordeal. But, the key is not in what Jesus could do, but in what He chose to give up. Paul writes about Christ’s sacrifice before the sacrifice on the cross: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8 ESV).”

At this point, in the garden, Jesus set aside His divine powers. He was experiencing this just as we would. He felt the fatigue. He knew the anxiousness. He did not have a free pass to glory. He experienced the passion in this way, not because He deserved to, but because in His rich grace He chose to carry our flesh. More than anyone else, Jesus felt the dichotomy between the spirit and the flesh. Jesus knew that burden in a deeper sense than any of us ever have. Though we carry the weight of our sins, we’ve never come close to bearing the entire world’s.

It is within this context, of the monumental suffering of our Savior, that He gently asks, “Why are you sleeping?” When you ask that question of yourself, what do you come up with? What would answer your Lord?
·       I didn’t think it was important to be watchful in all of Your Words, dear Lord.
·       I deserved a little break.
·       It didn’t hurt anyone, Jesus, why so strict with me?
·       You won salvation anyway, why should it matter what I do with Your commands?

Defiant as we may be at times, none us feel comfortable with those answers. Instead of trying to appease the flesh, the Holy Spirit would have us follow Jesus’ example. Think not of yourself, but think of what the Father allows you give up. Jesus was divine, yet He chose to set that aside to suffer as you and I would. The key to our strength rests in not only trusting who Jesus is, but what He chose to become. And in that same manner, by faith, the Holy Spirit leads us to the only answer to that question – “Why are you sleeping?”:
·       I have sinned, I confess that I need you, Lord, and I trust that You forgive me.

Watch and pray, dear brothers and sisters. Amen. 

February 12, 2018

Transfiguration Sunday - Luke 9:26-38

Theme: A Change in Jesus’ Appearance
1. As He sets His face toward Jerusalem
2. As He connects with Moses and Elijah
3. As He is approved by His Father 

Luke 9:28-36 About eight days after these words, He took along Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 As He was praying, the appearance of His face changed, and His clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly, two men were talking with Him-- Moses and Elijah. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of His death, which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and those with him were in a deep sleep, and when they became fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who were standing with Him. 33 As the two men were departing from Him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it's good for us to be here! Let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"-- not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud appeared and overshadowed them. They became afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 Then a voice came from the cloud, saying: This is My Son, the Chosen One; listen to Him! 36 After the voice had spoken, only Jesus was found. They kept silent, and in those days told no one what they had seen. (Luke 9:28 CSB)

The Transfiguration was about change. That’s not such a bold thought for the very word Transfiguration means to “change one’s appearance.” This event in Jesus’ ministry is properly named. Indeed, His literal appearance changed, as we see from our text: His face and clothes became bright. But, even today, the more important aspects of the Transfiguration are often lost on people. We know that Jesus went up on a mountain, became glorious in appearance, and spoke with Moses and Elijah. But what did it all mean? Too many of us can sympathize with Peter who himself was lost for meaning and ended up offering a foolish explanation of what it meant.

The true meaning of the Transfiguration involves a much deeper change than the appearance of Jesus’ face or clothing. There was also a change in Jesus’ mindset and actions as He now approached Jerusalem. He would do fewer miracles in public. He would spend much more time instructing the twelve. He would ratchet up His discussions with the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Part 1: As He sets His face toward Jerusalem

The first change which manifests this new demeanor is how Jesus set His face for Jerusalem. The Transfiguration often doesn’t receive the prominence of the crucifixion or resurrection when Jesus’ life is discussed, but the reality is that the Transfiguration was just as important, and just as centered on our justification. Verse 31 tells us what Jesus was thinking about: They appeared in glory and were speaking of His death, which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.

Jesus was not basking in His glory. It was important for the disciples to see and understand that Jesus was truly God, therefore He displayed Himself in what our text calls a “dazzling” way. But, as far as what Jesus was focused on, Luke tells us by inspiration that He was thinking about what lay ahead. The Transfiguration was a blending of Jesus’ divinity and humanity. He displayed Himself in an exalted, glorified way – as He truly was. But, His heart and attitude were centered on sacrifice – a gift that only someone who was also human could offer.  

We saw another example of this last weekend, as we studied how Jesus predicted His death and resurrection on three occasions for the disciples. The Transfiguration was sandwiched between two of these prophecies and in a way, acts out exactly what Jesus was predicting. He was approaching glory – both for Himself and for the rest of the world as He would defeat sin and death in Jerusalem. But, this victory would be accomplished through His death. Mocking, ridicule, and suffering would be part of the ordeal. The greatest of contrasts indeed, but the very dichotomy of Jesus Himself: True Man and True God. The Transfiguration testified of both.

Part 2: As He Connects with Moses and Elijah

Another very important part of the Transfiguration was the presence of Moses and Elijah. But, again, we question, why? This can be seen as the change from Old Testament to New Testament. Moses and Elijah were two of the most revered figures in Jewish culture. Ask any of Jesus’ opponents back then and they most certainly would have said that Jesus was not aligned in teaching with Moses and Elijah. Moses was considered the greatest Savior figure in Old Testament history since he led the Israelites out of slavery under Egypt. Elijah was considered the greatest prophet in Old Testament history.

It was not mere coincidence that Moses and Elijah met with Jesus that day. Their presence was a symbol that the ways of the Old Testament were giving way to the New Testament. Their shared conversation with Jesus was a testimony that Jesus was the Messiah, the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s prophecies. One cannot help but think that the Jews would have certainly benefited from seeing this. The Pharisees, in particular, were so convinced that Jesus was not the Chosen One, certainly this could have changed their hearts.

But, as Jesus said elsewhere, if one does not believe the word of God, what He called “Moses and the Prophets,” they will not be convinced no matter what they see, even if they see someone rise from the dead (Luke 16:31). Truly, this statement itself proved to be prophetic, as after the resurrection the Pharisees chose to lie about it rather than see the Savior for themselves. Long before this moment, they had rejected the Word of God. Seeing the amazing sight of the Transfiguration would not have changed that fact.

However, there was one Jewish man who was quite impressed. Upon seeing the holy conclave of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah Peter rashly recommended, “Master, it's good for us to be here! Let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Can we really blame Peter? What would we have said in that moment? Probably nothing more wise or sincere. And through Peter’s hasty reaction another change was revealed. Jesus was not here to dwell in earthly tents. The word used here is the same as that of the Old Testament tabernacle, which Moses did use. The time for God to dwell in man-made tents had come to an end. Pretty soon, even the Temple itself would not mean what it used to. The old was departing for the new. The veil which covered the Holy of Holies was soon to be torn from top to bottom. Peter was looking upon the Savior of all nations. You can’t bottle something like that up and save it for later.

Similarly, we are living in the age of our Lord’s fulfillment. As Paul later wrote, the time to believe is now, saying “And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. 12 The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. (Rom 13:11-12).” He also said, Acts 17:30-31 "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 "because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead." (Act 17:30 NKJ)

Let us not waste our time trying to preserve things in this fallen and limited world. God wants us to look heavenward. With so many distractions in life that seek to keep us focused on the finite, a lesson we learn from the Transfiguration is to “seek those things which are above, where our Savior reigns,” and just as our Savior taught. Eternal blessings come to those who follow by faith, not by sight. Daily forgiveness and strength is granted to the one who considers his heart, not his bank account. As Peter was taught by the Lord, so we should remember to desire God’s will, not our own.

Part 3: As He is approved by His Father (contrast to Gethsemane)

The final thought of change centers on the words of the Father, This is My Son, the Chosen One; listen to Him! Where Peter was dumbfounded at what to do, God the Father spoke clearly. Our job is to listen to His Son, the Chosen One. The Father wraps up the meaning of the Transfiguration well. As the final puzzle piece in God’s plan of salvation, Jesus proved to be the Chosen One, the Christ and the Messiah. He connected the work of Moses, Elijah and the rest of the Old Testament believers. He gave their lives meaning. But, Jesus also extends the blessings of God’s mercy to future generations. He is the precious and chosen Cornerstone of the Church – It’s founding member and the One who keeps is level.

The Father’s words remind us that the Transfiguration was the Son’s ceremony of approval. He was soon to be despised and rejected by many. He was approaching a moment of forsakenness on the cross, from this same Father, because of our transgressions. This punishment would not be the end, however. The Father’s approval here reminds us of that.

As we read our text, you might have noticed some similarities between what happened here on the mount and what will soon happen in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus goes to a secluded spot to pray. He brings Peter, James, and John with Him. They fall asleep. He gives evidence of His divine and human natures. All similarities among these two events. Yet, there is a key difference.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, the Father spoke to His Son. In the Garden, the Son will speak to His Father. In one setting there is joy and approval. In the other there is agony and submission. From a human perspective, the mount seems to be everything we would expect from the Son of God coming to earth. Glory, honor, and prestige. Perhaps that’s why Peter wanted to stay there. In the Garden, the unexpected occurs: great drops of blood, prayers for relief, and loneliness. What are we to make of this heavenly correspondence between the Father and His Son?

Well, for those who may think that Jesus is nothing more than a great prophet, it’s a reminder that He was not only approved but forsaken. Both acts were necessary for our salvation. If Jesus was a great man and nothing more, the crucifixion was indeed a pointless act of brutality. But, if Jesus is who He said He was, who Moses and Elijah were waiting for, then the Father’s approval and punishment fit perfectly with His Son’s work.

The final change of the Transfiguration was that the simple approval of Jesus as the Messiah needed to fade away to the divine disapproval on the cross; not because Jesus Himself had changed. He knew this even on the Mount of Transfiguration. This change happened because of you and me – our sins. It was the only way they could be taken away. And after Jesus’ death, when both the Father’s approval and wrath had been fulfilled, Jesus’ resurrection began the greatest exaltation – even more than that of the Transfiguration. He is our living Savior and Redeemer. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

February 6, 2018

Faith Translates Fear - Mark 9:30-32

Theme: Faith Translates Fear     
1. So that we can understand God’s Word
2. So that we can trust God’s work

Dear friends in Christ,

In 1996 a US astronaut spent 188 days in space with two cosmonauts from the formerly Soviet Union. Obviously, when confined in a tight space station for that long, you have opportunities to get to know one another. One evening they conversed after supper about what life was like for them during the Cold War. The Cold War was aptly named because it was a period of aggression that was strained and tense, not with weapons and armies but with secrets and spies. In that setting, perceptions drove fear of one another.

Both the American and the Russians were surprised at how terrified they were of each other’s countries. I suppose the tension of the Cold War had to have come from somewhere, but for these astronauts the idea that their nation hated the other to the point of declaring nuclear war seemed far-fetched. It was the perception of fear and no more.

Whether perception or reality, fear can be a strong motivator. During the Cold War it caused entire populaces to believe things about others that in the end didn’t seem to match reality. It you look at other pivotal, terrifying moments in history, fear is always present and often leads to misguided actions. Think of our text today, and the effect that fear had on the disciples before Jesus:

Mark 9:30-32 Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. 31 For He taught His disciples and said to them, "The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day." 32 But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him.

These are the inspired and holy Words that God has recorded for us in His Word. They are trustworthy and reliable. They are relevant to our lives. They offer the eternal wisdom of Christ the crucified. May the Holy Spirit bless our study of these words as we come to recognize that “Faith Translates Fear,” So that we can understand God’s Word and so that we can trust His Works.

We know that fearing God is an important part of believing in Him. The Bible speaks to great lengths about the need for sinners to fear God. For example, Psalm 33 says, Let all the earth fear the LORD; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, On those who hope in His mercy (33:8,18). This type of fear, namely reverence or respect, is the most common Biblical example of fear. It’s important to mention this because when we hear the word fear we often think first of terror. When the Psalmist compares fear to “hoping in God’s mercy” it’s clearly not a matter of terror.

When considering fear, any Lutheran will naturally be drawn to Martin Luther’s explanations to the Ten Commandments. Each one begins, “We should fear and love God…” Luther certainly knew ‘terror fear’ and ‘faithful fear’ of God. He experienced both in his life. But, he also knew which one was more important. There is a healthy need to be terrified of the holy God, but that feeling should not remain in faith. For those who rely and trust in Christ there is never a reason to be terrified of God, and if that terror remains it can be damaging to faith. God wants faith in Jesus to translate terror fear into respect fear, this is the theme of our text.

Part 1. So that we can understand God’s Word

When you look at that text, however, you see terror in the words and inactions of the disciples. The last verse tells us that they were afraid to ask Jesus what His words meant. Why were they terrified? Jesus hadn’t said anything harsh, at least not anything directed toward the disciples. In fact, what Jesus said was the pure gospel. He foretold His satisfactory death of atonement on the cross and His resurrection, the very events of history that would conquer sin and the grave for all people. We hear these words and we rejoice. We’re certainly not afraid. What was different for the disciples? They didn’t understand. And their terror of Jesus caused them to shy away from asking for more clarity.

To understand why the disciples responded this way we have to understand the context of this moment with Jesus. There were three very clear moments in Jesus’ ministry when He said very blatantly that He would suffer, die, and rise again. Each of these moments is recorded in Mark’s Gospel. This first came in Mark 8:31 and this is the time when Peter replied by telling Jesus that this would never happen and Jesus said to Peter, “Get Behind Me Satan!” This was quite a stern rebuke of Peter. It’s not surprising that at the second occurrence when Jesus predicted this, the words of our text, the disciples were a little nervous about inquiring more. The third and final prediction came in Mark 10:32-34. The disciples’ reaction here was not to ask about it, but it was the time when James and John asked for preeminence in heaven. If you read on from our text, there is a similar exchange as we’re told that the disciples argued about who would be greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.

The disciples were afraid of Jesus’ prediction, but we should recognize that their fear came from a misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus’ work. They were afraid because they didn’t understand. Our text literally means that they were “ignorant” in verse 32. But, they didn’t understand because they were afraid. It was a terrible cycle to be caught in.

When Jesus made these predictions, it was almost as if He was speaking in a foreign language to the disciples. The message itself was very succinct. "The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day." By themselves, these words have no confusion. It was the meaning of it all that escaped the disciples. What they didn’t yet realize is that faith translates those things that would make us afraid of God, so that we can understand their meaning in the proper context of His grace.

The same problem exists for all those who look at God’s Word in the light of His almighty power alone. To the person who is truly aware of their sins and God’s necessary punishment of those sins, the raw power of God doesn’t not illicit comfort. The disciples were well aware of Jesus’ power and holiness. They had witnessed the miracles firsthand. This text comes immediately on the heels of the Transfiguration. In previous moments of sheer power, they had made the good confession that they believed in Jesus. And yet, in these moments of great simplicity and clarity, when Jesus predicts the very work He was here to accomplish, the disciples were dumbfounded.

2. So that we can trust God’s work

This truth teaches us that just as a healthy fear of Jesus helps us understand His Word, so also it helps us trust His work. Within the very prediction that Jesus made was the greatest example of His love and mercy. This grace cracks the hard exterior of human sinfulness and fear and reveals to us that we don’t have to respond to God in light of His holiness alone. It was the very thing that the disciples needed.

But to the person consumed with the power of God, the idea of suffering and dying doesn’t seem to fit. This is why Peter was rebuked so harshly in chapter 8. Peter was denying the very thing that would bring him life with God – the very reason Jesus came to earth. Satan is more than happy for believers to look at Christ alone as the all-powerful God who is distant and demanding of His creation. This is what makes the temptation so tricky. Sometimes it’s the truths of God’s Word that are most apparent that can also be twisted to become the most dangerous. Satan wants us to confess Christ’s deity so long as it means we deny His sacrifice. Peter was on the brink of that distinction and Jesus sternly called him back to the truth.

This is also why we need to be so constantly aware of Christ’s work in our lives. Many people wonder, why isn’t worship and church livelier? Why don’t we branch out to different topics more often and cover things we don’t yet know outside of the Word of God? Why stay so closely attached to the same Bible lessons day after day and year after year? It’s because the Word and Work of our Savior is so vitally important, and we need reminders of it regularly.  

Take the topic we’re considering today. Proper fear versus misplaced fear. Respect versus terror. In a way both things are needed in our relationship with God. When we’re complacent and comfortable in our sins, we need a terrifying wake-up call of judgment and repentance. We could call that a good thing for our faith. But, if we get stuck on that type of fear alone, we create even bigger problems – insecurity in our faith, reluctance to communicate with God in prayer, and a desire to be distant from His Word and sanctuary. A blessed truth can be ever-so slightly twisted to become a dangerous temptation, and there are hundreds of areas of our lives where this can happen. It’s only by returning to the work of Jesus for us, with clarity and frequency, that we stay healthy in our faith. And it’s only through the Word of our Savior, Jesus, that we return to His work.

Our text sounds like there was almost a ‘cold war’ type of tension between the disciples and Jesus. They were not openly at odds with their Savior. They trusted Him. They knew Him. They desired to follow Him. But there were also certain things they didn’t understand; important things too, like why Jesus was going to suffer, die, and rise again. This tension was created and dominated by fear – not respect, but terror. This tension also led the disciples to think more about what they had to do. So they questioned who was greatest. So James and John desired to be greatest in heaven. If God was strict and demanding then they needed to be better than the rest. At least then, if one of them was found at fault, they could point the finger at something worse done by someone else. This was the sad state of the disciples’’ faith at this point. It’s no wonder that Jesus spent extra time with them near the end of His ministry – to teach them and to comfort them for what was coming.

Is there tension between you and God? Do you trust God as your ally, as your head, or are you afraid of what He demands? You can fall into the same trap the disciples found themselves in – even if you know and believe exactly what Jesus’ death and resurrection mean for you. You can fall into a trap by ignoring God’s Word and Work in other areas. The pressing need for us to listen to our Heavenly Father’s voice is just a needful in our lives because our danger, while it could be different from the disciples, can lead to the exact same place – separation from God and reliance upon ourselves. In fact, this is the very brand of Christianity, the very nature of faith, that so many claim to have today.

The disciples were lost at this point, but the very truths that here perplexed them would become their greatest source of strength after Jesus accomplished what He set out to do. If you look at the ministries of the disciples as recorded in the Scriptures, they all come back again and again to their Savior’s death and resurrection as payment for the sins of the world. Was it because they understood it better with time? Perhaps in a way. But, the gospel still baffles human reason to this day. Was it because they figured out how Jesus did it all? No, the gospel still defies our understanding. The disciples didn’t have anything more than what you have – the word of God, the works of God, and the gift of faith to trust them.

It was the confidence of faith, gifted to them by the working of the Holy Spirit that finally translated the disciples fear. No longer was this gospel proclamation a foreign sound to their ears. Through faith, it was the key that unlocked the heavenly wisdom of their Savior, Jesus, and it’s the same gift that continues to draw desperate, longing Christians back to the throne of God, to hear their Savior’s words and to reflect upon His Works. God continue to grant it so in our lives. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.